February 8, 2006

Triple Lutz No Cure For Sports Craving

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Despite the fact that I was born on Valentine’s Day (you’d think this would help me with women, but no), I hate the month of February. It’s cold, snow turns from a novelty into a nuisance, and my rotation of sweaters is getting increasingly predictable. I’m told that there are several national holidays during the month – “President’s Day” and “Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” I think they’re called – but I don’t know for sure, because I go to Cornell.

Even if our beloved institution granted us the occasional three-day weekend (someone get Skorton on the phone), I’m not sure I would know what to do with myself. February is the leading edge of a vast and terrifying sports wasteland, spanning from the Super Bowl to March Madness. It’s depressing, actually. Football is in hibernation until the NFL Draft, Spring Training doesn’t really get under way until March, and the NBA and NHL don’t matter until their respective postseasons. We go from the World Series, to college football’s bowl season, to the NFL playoffs, and then nothing. If it weren’t for all the chocolate hearts, I’d probably go insane.

(Oh, and spare me the angry diatribes from the handfuls of die-hard basketball and hockey fans out there. Actually, on second thought, I’d love for someone to explain to me how a regular season can be relevant when half the teams make the playoffs. Email me. Seriously. I’d love to hear the arguments.)

But every four years, a bridge appears to help us cross this harrowing sports-less chasm. The only problem is that it’s extremely rickety and covered in ice. Ladies and Gentlemen, live this Friday night from Italy, I give you – The Winter Olympics! Are you ready for some figure skating?!?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like the Winter Olympics. In fact, I’m one of those annoying bleeding-heart idealists who still cling to the notion that the Olympic Games are a glorious manifestation of all that is good and honorable in humanity. I’ll gladly watch a bunch of Scandinavians mush around a cross-country ski course for a couple of hours. Winning an Olympic gold medal makes you “The Best in the World.” Who cares if it’s the freaking biathlon; no one on Planet Earth can ski 20km and shoot a rifle better than you. And that’s pretty damn cool.

But I’m in the minority, I think. The Olympics aren’t exactly the ratings bonanza they should be, the Winter version especially. The Summer Games have always seemed to be the big brother, and with good reason. Events like 100-meters and the marathon give the Summer Games undeniable cachet, and beach volleyball has already become far and away the most popular Olympic event in the history of televised sports. The Winter Olympics have Russians twirling around in sequins; the Summer Olympics have Swedes in bikinis.

(Are you noticing a theme here? All I ever write about are obscure sporting events that 90% of you guys could care less about. See? I hate February. Just wait until March, when I start cranking out 8,000-word analyses of the Red Sox minor league pitching staff. You’ll be looking back on this like it was the good old days.)

But, surely, the lack of tanned semi-nudity can’t account for the entire discrepancy in popularity. And I don’t think it necessarily because of the relative popularity of the individual events either. Certainly, the Winter Olympics lack a catchy, snowy version of the title “The Fastest Man in the World,” but it’s not like fans are rioting over a shortage of tickets to track meets. That’s the beauty of the Olympics – we pay attention to sports we would never ever care about simply because they’re Olympic events. Anybody know what Michael Phelps is up to right now? Didn’t think so. Those five interlocking rings make marginal sports singularly relevant. People are going to watch a race, as long as it’s an Olympic race, regardless of whether the athletes are wearing sneakers or ice skates, whether they’re wearing swim goggles or ski masks.

So, why are the Winter Olympics the redheaded stepchild?

I have a theory: it’s a question of legitimacy. That’s right figure skating, I’m looking at you.

I happen not to think very highly of figure skating, and just like gymnastics, I absolutely refuse to refer to it as a sport. Here’s a handy rubric that I like to use when determining whether or not something is a sport: if the color of your sequined top and choice of music (music, for crying out loud!) could conceivably have any bearing on the outcome of the event, it’s not a sport. Look, I’m not knocking the athleticism needed to land a triple lutz, hell, I have trouble clearing a soda can. I’m simply taking issue with the nature of the “competition.” You have a better chance of securing peace in the Middle East than you do determining the clear-cut winner of a figure skating performance. There’s nothing more ridiculous than a Hungarian in a billowy pirate shirt waddling off the rink with four dozen roses and then head for the green room to await the judges rulings, so he can find out whether or not all that frolicking actually meant anything.

It’s the presence of the judges that really gets me. As an athlete, I cannot fathom relinquishing my competitive onus to a bunch of “impartial” observers. This is supposed to be the Olympics, not the Miss Universe pageant. An individual skater cannot “beat” his opponents; he has to rely on the interpretations of the judges. Even in baseball, where the strike zone is left up to the interpretation of the umpire, you’ll never see a strike count of 3.1 balls and 2.7 strikes. There’s not one shred of quantifiable data in a figure skating performance. It’s completely ambiguous. Remember how I said the Olympics were special because a gold medal makes you “The Best in the World?” Well, you can’t ever be sure that the winner of the figure skating event really should have won! What if the French judge gave the American a 2.3? It’s ridiculous. Call it an “athletic exhibition,” but don’t call it a sport. I feel the same way about snowboarding and skateboarding, and I like snowboarding and skateboarding. But even the X Games have huge rulers to measure amplitudes in the half-pipe.

However, every human with two X chromosomes adores figure skating, so it’s not going anywhere, and I look like a curmudgeon. But the problem as related to the rest of the Winter Olympics is that plenty of other people find similar illegitimacies in the other events. One could easily make the case that skiing, bobsled, and luge are something less than sports, simply because gravity is doing most of the work (this is the NASCAR Corollary). Older generations certainly bristle at the inclusion of the “action” events like snowboarding and freestyle skiing. And I’m reasonably sure that there are more than a few individuals who think curling should be stricken from all memory. If you get enough people wondering whether or not an event qualifies as Olympic, it’s a problem. Especially when the frontline sports are the ones in question.

The Summer Olympics doesn’t have to deal with this sort of inquisition. No one is questioning the validity of the 100-meter dash (insert steroid joke here). Hacks at collegiate newspapers aren’t penning horribly overwrought columns about the illegitimacy of the shot put. The Summer Games have a secure legacy. But until enough of us can reconcile our athletic principals, the Winter Games will always be the mercy date with the nerd that we suffer through until pitchers and catchers report (by the way, sorry Marla. I swear I’ll call).

Per Ostman is a Sun Senior Writer. The Victory Lap will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Per Ostman